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Pokemon X/Y review: I want to be the very best


Here's hoping your karma's in the black, because we've apparently reached the end of days. Law & Order has ended its run, cats and dogs are sleeping together and, most apocalyptic of all, Nintendo has created a fully three-dimensional entry in its beloved Pokémon franchise. Such seismic design shifts usually create growing pains, often leaving players with a sequel that's trumped by its predecessors despite a new aesthetic. Pokémon X and Y, however, aren't just the best-looking Pokémon games to date, they may be the best Pokémon games period.

Shortly after starting the game, players receive a Pokédex to help them catalog the Pokémon they encounter. Unlike past games however, this Pokédex offers a host of new options. These include mini-games you can play with your 'mon to boost various attributes, a Player Search System that makes finding new battles and trading partners a quick, simple affair, and an app that lets players pet and feed their critters in an adorable first-person view. These are relatively small additions, but they go a long way toward making the Pokémon of Pokémon X/Y the most relatable, interactive creatures Nintendo has ever designed.

Gallery: Pokemon X/Y (8/9/13 Screens) | 32 Photos

Pokémon X/Y is the first game in Pokéhistory to offer a fully three-dimensional world to explore. Every character, object and Pokémon is cast as a simple 3D model wrapped in a whimsical, cel-shaded skin. This brings Pokémon X/Y as close to the aesthetics seen in the Pokémon cartoon as the franchise has ever been. Of special note is the developer's subtle use of the 3DS' 3D effects, which you won't see throughout most of your time in Pokémon X/Y. Instead, such effects are reserved for Pokémon battles and certain dramatic moments. This prevents undue eye strain and keeps players from growing tired of the gimmick, but it also lends additional tension to instances that warrant it. Unfortunately, Nintendo seems to have overestimated the power of the 3DS, and Pokemon X/Y suffers from moments of slowdown. It's never bad enough to disrupt gameplay, but all players will inevitably come across the issue - particularly those who leave the 3D slider cranked to maximum. Turning 3D off helps the slowdown, though it doesn't eliminate it.

The new 3D world lends a number of modern accoutrements to the gameplay. Players can customize their characters with new clothing options, and the camera pans and zooms into and out of combat, lending the proceedings a dynamic feel not seen in prior Pokémon games. Despite these changes, long-time Pokéfanatics will be comfortable with most aspects of Pokemon X/Y - Nintendo took great pains to ensure that movement, battles and menu navigation function almost identically to prior entries - but 3D movement runs into problems when combined with the franchise's traditional grid-based paths. Without the traditionally fixed camera angle, the sudden access to diagonal movement proves initially awkward, though it's easy enough to come to grips with.

Beyond Pokémon X/Y's 3D additions, its gameplay should be familiar to fans. Pokémon has always been heavily menu-driven and Pokémon X/Y is no exception. Selecting attacks and capturing Pokémon is a simple matter of selecting the proper option, either using buttons or the 3DS' touchscreen. The plot is relatively rote, asking players to once again travel an expansive region, capturing Pokémon, building a combat team, and eventually defeating gym leaders and then the Elite Four. It's the same basic plot found in every Pokémon game, though the opening segment does a far better job of explaining how the world works than its predecessors, and the new functionality and creatures found in Pokémon X/Y makes it more engrossing.

Pokemon X  Y review I want to be the very bestSky and Horde Battles are the two new battle types in Pokémon X/Y. The former asks players to battle using only flying Pokémon against other similarly aerodynamic critters. Horde battles pit your Pokémon against up to five others simultaneously. Both of these new types of battles appear sparingly, and always come as a nice change of pace from the standard one-on-one brawls you encounter most often.

Pokémon X/Y also adds a number of new diversions for players to discover. You may find yourself taking tourist photos at various landmarks (which are conveniently saved to the 3DS' Flash card) or browsing boutiques in a hunt for new clothes for your character. Everything from hats to socks to tote bags can be altered at will. It's a small feature in the grand scheme of things, but if Nintendo had hoped to make Pokémon even more addictive, giving players the freedom to play virtual dress up with their avatar is a clever step.

The way Nintendo has refined the series' mainstay features is also impressive. For example, "Exp. Share," which splits earned experience among your whole party, is no longer an item that must be attached to a Pokémon. Instead, it's a toggle that appears once you're given an Exp. Share item. That occurs roughly three hours into the story, ensuring that for the majority of your adventure all of your Pokémon will receive experience points, regardless of which 'mon is doing the battling.

Pokemon X  Y review Poke the mans
The new graphics in Pokemon X/Y have received the lion's share of media attention, but the sound design has received a hefty boost as well. In short, the music and sound effects are the best the Pokémon franchise has ever had. Pokémon X/Y maintains the classic, low-fidelity cries of each Pokémon, but everything else has been remastered or completely re-recorded. Even the standard Pokémon theme has been re-recorded in higher quality and with new instruments, making it more technically and aurally accomplished than ever.

Perhaps more crucial than any graphical or aural upgrades is the way that Pokémon X/Y embraces online gameplay. Instead of building things from scratch, the multiplayer options in Pokémon X/Y are bolted on top of those seen in Pokémon Black/White and have many similarities. The user interface has been drastically improved, but connecting to the net, syncing with the Global Trade Station and navigating the game's many menus is as familiar as Ash's Pikachu. New additions include a Player Search System that offers on-demand battles and trading options as long as players have an Internet connection. Not only does the PSS keep track of whether members of your Friends List are online or not, it also shows trainers from around the world who are available to throw down or swap pocket monsters. You can even add these players to your "acquaintance" list, allowing you to play with them again, no Friend Code required. Letting players connect to strangers isn't something Nintendo has been known for, but it's a huge boon for players. (Having played Pokémon X/Y prior to its official launch, I was unable to properly test online connectivity, so expect an addendum to this review once the game is in more players' hands.)

By combining refinements like these with classic gameplay, a revamped aesthetic and plenty of new gameplay options, Nintendo has created a Pokémon sequel that will not only be adored by Pokémaniacs, but should also draw new players to the series. With less of a learning curve and a wealth of new content to discover, Pokémon X/Y both builds on its pedigree and redefines what players should expect from the franchise. Most importantly, the game seems to have been designed with usability in mind, while also maintaining the endless reams of Pokémon trivia and esoteric references that longtime fans demand.

Whether you've wrangled dozens of Charmanders or couldn't pick a Pikachu out of a Safari Zone lineup, Pokémon X/Y is hands-down the best in the series.

This review is based on retail copies of Pokémon X and Pokémon Y, provided by Nintendo.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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